The Week Ahead: Emerging dragon

ANALYSIS: China’s annual polar research expedition will add to our scientific understanding of the Arctic. More importantly, it gives an insight into Beijing’s interests in the region

By Kevin McGwin - July 23, 2018
The “Xuelong” navigates through fog during an Antarctic expedition (Polar Research Institute of China)

On Friday, China’s polar icebreaker, the Xuelong, departed Shanghai for its ninth expedition to the Arctic.

For the next two months, the 100 or so scientists on board (mostly Chinese, but also including a contingent of French and American marine biologists) will be engaged in a voyage of discovery, with studies of things like marine radioactivity, microplastics, ocean acidification meteorology and hydrography planned, according to the Polar Research Institute of China, which operates the Xuelong.

This means that, as far as the science goes, the expedition will be useful, but unremarkable. Similar studies have been undertaken in previous years, and its leader expects this year will resemble past voyages.

For those viewing from the shore, what sets this year’s voyage apart is that it is the first since Beijing, on January 26, released an Arctic policy that laid out its ambitions in the region, reiterating in the process that it sees itself as a “near-Arctic state”.

[China just received its first LNG shipment to arrive directly from the Russian Arctic by ship]

The former is not unique. Most Arctic Council observers (a group to which China belongs) have an official statement of how they would like the region to be used and governed. The latter is. Based on geography alone, it’s also somewhat dubious: Dozens of other countries (including most of Europe and a good portion of Central Asia) are closer to the Arctic than China.

What those other countries do not have, however, is an $8 trillion infrastructure investment program and a stated intent of using it to create a Polar Silk Road that would connect Europe and Asia by Arctic shipping routes.

This will partly explain why the Xuelong has included meteorology and hydrography in its mission, and why it will spend much of its time in the Chukchi and Bering seas: These are the bodies of water on either side of the Bering Strait, through which all traffic on a Polar Silk Road would need to pass. The research the expedition conducts there can contribute to Beijing’s understanding of how the strait can be navigated safely.

When China first publicly made its near-Arctic claim (generally accepted to be in 2012, the year before it became an Arctic Council observer) most took it literally. As the Xuelong heads north this year, it appears that it instead should have been taken seriously.

The Week Ahead is a preview of some of the events related to the region that will be in the news in the coming week. If you have a topic you think ought to be profiled in a coming week, please email [email protected].